I recently joined a discussion on Romans with a bunch of high school students. During it, one student was becoming visibly frustrated. Eventually, she worked up the courage to admit what had been bothering her. With a bit of hesitation, she said that “Paul seemed like a jerk.”
I got it, immediately. Reading Paul’s letters, it’s easy for me to pull an impression of him as a condemning, unsympathetic, no-nonsense kind of guy. When we only see him getting mad at his missionary partners, or calling churches “foolish,” he tends to turn one-dimensional. And this problem is made worse when his letters are read in isolation from others, painting a picture that is, at the very least, incomplete.
This cartoony-villain way of seeing Paul is what the student described, and it’s a way that I, too, have seen Paul. Especially in Romans, because the opening to the letter tends to make me bristle. After introducing the theme of the “glorious gospel,” Paul jumps in the deep end. He gives a sweeping summation of God’s judgment, from the beginning of time until now. He talks about “the wrath of God” revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. [Read: all the things.] And this wrath is made manifest by God giving humans up to “dishonorable passions” and a “debased mind.” The wrath of God, says Paul, is tied up, somehow, with us continuing to sin.
This feels harsh because Paul kicks off his letter-treatise by denouncing us. Paul, the seemingly objective narrator of God’s judgment, gives us a long list of what unrighteousness looks like in our lives. It almost sounds like Paul is standing on a street corner, yelling into a megaphone: “You are a sinner. All of you. Here’s a list of sins, just in case you weren’t sure.”
But, this is the exact wrong impression. Why? Well, notice this little gem, tucked at the very end of the first chapter:
“Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
It sounds like a throwaway conclusion to the section, but it’s here that Paul makes an important rhetorical move. What is he saying? He’s saying something important about himself, in light of his former career:
"And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution."
When Paul writes the opening chapter of Romans, he isn’t thinking of sinful humanity as some abstract whole. No, he’s got himself in mind. The beginning of Romans is the beginning of a big story of God’s rescue, but attached to it is Paul’s humble confession. Right away, Paul practices what he preaches by showing that all of us, himself included, are condemnable.
That’s an important distinction, and it’s one that makes Paul less removed. He’s right here, tangled up in all of this unrighteousness with us. And because he’s naming his own sin, his confession becomes all the more powerful. Paul bravely faces the truth of his own condition, even though it shows him that he “deserves to die.” Paul doesn’t stand apart from us when he talks about sin or our frailty. Paul, the “apostle of disability” remembers that he’s in the exact middle of this problem. He's not only practiced in the sins he lists, but is an enabler of these same sins in others.
With this in mind, we can move through Romans remembering that there is no one, not even one, who stands purely on the “outside.” We’re caught together in corporate sin, approval, and hypocritical judgment. And we’re all in need of rescue--even Paul.